Theater director Peter Sellars has never seen a great work of art that didn’t reflect the madness of modern life. Which for years has driven critics around the bend, who have accused Sellars of dragging classic operas and plays through the mud of topical politics. This Friday at the venerable Ojai Music Festival, Sellars will stage The Winds of Destiny, a recent work by renowned composer George Crumb, to evoke the U.S. war in Afghanistan. I recently caught up with Sellars in New York, and again on the phone, when he was in Brussels directing Desdemona, a new theater work by Toni Morrison. His exuberance as a director carries over to his conversations, where his infectious high spirits never flag, even when addressing criticisms of his work.
In the The Winds of Destiny, Crumb recasts Civil War folk songs, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in a blistering setting of percussion and female voices. Why did you choose this piece for the Ojai festival?
Because the sense of being at war with one’s own country, and the violence of that, is so intense, and has left such a deep scar in the life of our country, that it has not only not healed, it is being reopened in our lifetime. Certain people in America now are trying to rewrite the social contract of this country to exclude a huge segment of the population from prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. We’ve returned to the same issues of the Civil War, where the future of America is about whether we’re going to allow people who are not white to be treated equally. And George Crumb has set the music in a strange, haunted universe of memory, of regret, and those memories contain an enormous amount of violence. That’s by definition post-traumatic stress disorder: things being replayed again and again; strange rattling and rustling and sleeplessness. This is music that really cuts deep.
Your productions often charge art with politics. How do the Crumb songs achieve that?
So much of our history is presented to us as sanitized, without emotion. For a while we were not allowed to see the coffins of returning U.S. service people. The idea that this emotion is being kept out of our lives, and we’re fighting these wars with no emotional consequences, is unthinkable. All previous American wars did affect the emotional temper of the country. But the attempt right now is to neuter that. That has devastating consequences for returning soldiers, who are coming home from a war that the American public has no feeling about. There’s no gratitude, there’s no respect, there’s no sense of the sacrifices they’ve made. When they come back, they’re expected to go right back to shopping. It’s a very strange moment where war is pervasive and yet absolutely invisible. These songs summon ghosts that are still haunting us and will not be erased by any kind of public relations campaign.
You’re infamous for producing classic works in modern settings, like The Marriage of Figaro in the Trump Tower. Is that your attempt to put a personal stamp on Mozart or Shakespeare?
My approach is very personal, and I think that’s the job description. That’s what you’re supposed to do as an artist. People are counting on someone to express themselves personally and to speak in a heartfelt way without prevarication and a lot of legal maneuvering and advertising that we have around us every day. It’s not propagandistic, it’s not to influence anybody, it’s just to try and speak as honestly as possible with as much attention as possible to your own biases. It’s about trying to find a moment of truth, the single most valuable thing you can offer anybody. That moment stays with you your whole life. You base your decisions on it. The easiest things in your life come from that moment of truth.
Yet audiences sometimes complain your work is propagandistic, that you’re trying to send them a political message.
Those people clearly don’t have much background in the history of art. Theater started with Greek tragedy, which is all about political messages. But not messages that come from the political world of elections and voting. Greek tragedy asks you to recognize the deep dimensions of issues and respond not just politically but humanly. It’s about humanizing your politics instead of politicizing your humanity. My shows aren’t finger-pointing, they’re not reducing things. They’re giving the political world back its complexity. We need art to detox politics because politics now are so lethal. What Congress has done this year—eliminate food for elderly people and children—is a human story, it’s not a political one. But the consequences of these actions are never played out in the media. It’s up to artists to testify to the human dimensions of the political story and to the fallout for human beings.
In 2009, you staged a modern-dress Othello to mirror Obama under political fire. The characters at times talked on cell phones and you created a new female soldier character who was assaulted. The reviews were pretty vicious. In The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that “Sellars has written his own play about love and war, and that Shakespeare’s words mostly just get in the way.” Did the review hurt?
Of course it hurts. But lots of things in life hurt. You can’t let that stop you. You have to do the opposite. You have to take some strength from it. You have to recognize that you’ve touched a very real nerve. Forgive me for saying it, because I don’t want to be melodramatic, but compared to real people, I have life easier than them. Unlike Euripides, I’m not dying in exile. Unlike Socrates, I’m not being asked to drink hemlock. It’s just a bad review in The New York Times. Worst things have happened to artists in human history. The real guys suffered a whole lot more than I will ever suffer. Mozart died thinking that his big operas were failures.
The night I saw Othello, a few people stormed for the exits in the middle of the second act.
Right, and my attitude is you were seeing a real picture of America, a bunch of people walking out, saying, “I’m not going to listen to this.” It’s the American attitude of “I didn’t order this, take it back to the kitchen.” The idea that the whole world is their personal restaurant where everything has to be cooked for them. You just want to say, “Grow up.” God did not create the world based on what you like and don’t like. Get over it. If your filter on life is what you like and don’t like, you’re going to miss most of the world. I get you don’t like it. But deal with it. Engage with it. It’s not just, “Oh, those are Muslims, I don’t like them, I’m leaving.” Excuse me, get past your own limitation and try and reach into another place and see what people are doing and why they are doing it.
You’ve been seen as bringing “Eurotrash” to our shores. And even called un-American.
Which again is way off the mark. I’m obsessed with the enlightenment idea of this country and by the people who founded those enlightenment principles. It’s why I was obsessed with Mozart and Handel. Handel was writing in the English oratorio tradition. That was a conscious attempt of very educated people, in the generation preceding Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, to say if there’s going to be democracy, and people just say anything on their mind, the level of dialogue will descend rapidly. So if there’s going to be public dialogue, we need to elevate it. We have to learn to speak our hearts and minds with eloquence so we can convince our fellow citizens of what would be just. Here’s how I think of it now. When you’re at a dinner party and you’re about to say something really stupid, and the person across from you says something astounding and really brilliant, and you suddenly decide to shut up for a moment and listen. About ten minutes later, you come back with something that you would never have said originally. You have been brought to a better place.
When students ask you what art is, what do you say?
Art is about giving you the context where you begin to understand right and wrong more deeply. Those are the most important things in living: right choices and wrong choices. How do you understand them? What insights do you gain when you stop judging things according to the surface, and you start looking more deeply?